Iconic Iron

Wrought iron is timeless, and its uses are boundless.
Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

For centuries, wrought iron was used to make weapons and tools, but in Rome, wrought iron saw its birth as protection and decoration. Heavily embellished gates protected homes, castles and churches from the enemy, and as early as the 16th century, the highly prized and durable metal found its way into homes as furniture and accessories, reaching its peak in popularity during the Baroque and Rococo periods.

The Spanish used wrought iron to create elaborate screens in their massive cathedrals. The French showcased their love of wrought iron in highly decorated balconies, stairway railings and gateways. For certain, our Spanish and French ancestors brought the love of wrought iron to New Orleans. A walk through this city’s French Quarter and Garden District tells the tale of lacy iron work balconies and fences and centuries-old gates forged by hand. In fact, these iron decorations are iconic features of our city today.

So how does the 21st-century home owner incorporate wrought iron into a home, whether it is a Victorian-era mansion or newly built cottage? “Very carefully,” says interior designer Corinne Laborde.

A tour of her elegant French-style home in Old Metairie reveals her passion for wrought iron. Massive front doors bear elegantly scrolled ironwork. Years of wear and flecks of paint from decades of previous owners remain, lending an air of authenticity and respect.

In the master bedroom, Laborde created an upholstered king-sized headboard using pieces of wrought iron, which were once part of a French bankteller’s station, as insets. Small streaks of copper peak through the iron, giving it a rich, warm patina.    
From two hefty sections of an iron fence Laborde found in Europe, she created sconces for a client’s dining room. When the tips fell off in transit, the ironworker artfully made them into finials for the lampshades.

“I left the centuries of imperfections and rust to give the sconces more interest and to respect its age,” she says. Half-moon shaped linen shades add a touch of simplicity and elegance to the lamps.

Laborde says one of the beauties of working with antique wrought iron is that there are no rules. The iron can be left with imperfections borne over time, or it can be cleaned up to a smooth finish, leaving only a slight patina. It depends on the owner’s taste and how the wrought iron will be used. In her own home, she uses it both ways. In most instances, she does nothing to the iron.

But in the case of an iron bistro table, now at home on her veranda, Laborde cleaned the rust-encrusted legs with Loctite, a naval jelly found in local hardware stores. She carefully brushed the jelly on the legs and hosed off years of build-up. A clear sealer protects the antique table from the elements.

Antique wrought iron can be used in any room and with any style of décor, she says. It looks great in its natural state as well as painted. It won’t rot, mildew or deteriorate. “When it comes to wrought iron, rules are made to be broken. The more creative you are with it, the better,” she says.

Antique wrought iron is hard to find, so expect to hunt for that perfect piece. Salvage stores like Ricca’s, The Bank, Habitat’s Restore and the PRC Salvage Store are great places to start. Estate and garage sales – especially those that advertise garden items – and out-of-the way antique and junk stores can often help you score big finds.  

“Don’t ever judge an antique store by its window,” says Laborde. “Walk into the most unexpected places, and you might just find exactly the piece you need.”

Most of all, if you see a piece of iron that you love, buy it. In time you’ll figure out what to do with it, whether it becomes the perfect coffee table (by adding a frame and legs and topping it with glass), sconces, or even a headboard. Wrought iron
is timeless and its uses are unlimited.

“I use wrought iron all the time in my own home and in my clients’ homes. It adds charm and character to a room. Just don’t over-do it. Each pattern is different and tells a story,” she says.

“Most of all, it is hand-forged by an artisan decades or even centuries ago. It’s something in your home no one else is likely to have, making a room unique and all your own.”

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